Monday, March 06, 2006

The Info dump

A quote from Michel Faber's Foreword in All the King's Horses and other stories:

The problem is, it’s not easy to write fiction set in bygone ages without doing all the things that good narrative sense tells us not to. Those who learn too much from the past are condemned to repeat it. That is, those who have carefully studied, eg, 17th century Flemish butchers as “background research” for their story are often condemned to tell us every little thing they’'ve learned about butchery, the Flemings, and the 17th century in general. They may flatter themselves that this is precisely what they'’ve avoided. They may assure us that what they show in the narrative is only the tip of the iceberg, and that the vast bulk of their research is actually submerged, unstated, implicit. They may speak disparagingly of those other historical writers who just can'’t help pointing out period details twenty times per page. But then you start reading, and before you know it, you are inundated with information that the characters themselves would never remark upon. Illiterate peasants mention, in the course of unlikely conversations, what year it is and which king is on the throne. Pampered ladies who, in real life, would have regarded their servants the way we regard the electrical cord behind the fridge, feel honour-bound to describe everything their maids are doing. Everyone seems bizarrely compelled to analyse every aspect of their daily lives: the composition of their clothing, the contents of their food, the manufacture of virtually every object they touch. And, of course, every sentence spoken by everyone is stuffed with archaisms. Even Babylonian slaves and Vikings orate like pompous Victorians.

Michel Faber, Foreword, All the King's Horses and other stories, Fish Publishing, 2006

Yes indeedy! As an archaeologist, I'm a material culture heavyweight, so I have to be very aware of describing things in minute detail - it's my day job, after all; it's what I do naturally. Very possibly, in my writing, I've gone the other way and have too light a touch. I'm not sure. But I do actually like a good sense of period in the stories I read. However, archaisms are not welcome, neither is crossing the status boundary line without a second thought. I don't necessarily like stories which are essentially timeless. Faber goes onto praise the winning story in the anthology as being able to be set in Iraq, as much as at Agincourt. I'm hoping that the story (when I manage to get hold of it ...) will also sweep me away with its brilliance, whatever the setting.


At 3:45 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Of course, he has a point when it comes to overdoing the material culture and background. But if I read a historical fiction story, I want enough of it that I feel it is taking place at Agincourt, and not Iraq. That goes not only for the material culture but also for the characters. A knight at Azincourt should not be interchangeable with an American officer in Iraq.

If I want to read about Iraq I can read mainstream.

At 4:41 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

It's likely that Faber means the war-is-hell-theme. But to check that out, I really want to see the story he's referring to. I think the man in the story is a common soldier.

At 6:17 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Lol, yep war is hell, and in some way there are similarities fe. between the Iraq war and the fights at the Hadrian's Wall. But the culture, the characters as product of their culture, are different. What is common to both settings is human suffering and grief. But the way people deal with grief is different for a Roman and an American, for a Pict and an Iraqi.

Sometimes you can use a psychological detail from a modern setting and work it into the historical context. I blogged about it here.

Read the story and tell us if it works. :-)

At 8:16 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

I realise the differences, but does Faber? That's why I want to read the story; it seems to have won because of the 'Iraq' aspect, but that may be what Faber brought to the judging, rather than what the author intended.

The characters I write about have a radically different attitude to war and fighting than I have, for example. My day-to-day handling of materials (and indeed bodies) from the distant past also re-inforces the differences :-)

At 11:08 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Yep, overall my characters take fighting and war as part of their life.

Julius Pollineus who abhors violence is an exception (I bet those existed back then), and while Horatius doesn't mind killing men in a punitive expeition, he doesn't like to kill women and children. But pietas was an acceptable Roman virtue and Horatius has a reason to show clemency towards victims after the emperor pardoned him during the trial of Horatius' family for plotting his murder (Horatius didn't take part in it, but Hadrian can't be sure about that).

So, the bodies you find have met a violent death for the most? Cloven skulls and arrowheads in the chest area? ;-)

At 8:28 am GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

I recently blogged about having the decapitated bodies resident in my house for a couple of days ;-) But the point is, I handle the material, see the buildings (or parts thereof), so it's a constant reminder to me the past was different.

At 9:57 am GMT, Blogger Carla said...

Hopefully what Faber means is that the story is applicable to or has parallels with the modern war, as in the blog post Gabriele linked (thanks for the link, Gabriele). As opposed to being a story about the modern war played by people in period costume. Perhaps you'll tell us your verdict if/when you get a chance to read the story?

At 12:36 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

I'm presuming that is what Faber meant too :-)

At 4:15 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

I remember that post. I wonder if there's a theory (or theories) why they had been decapitated.


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